Education reformer Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island)

The senate passed a compromise teacher evaluation bill this afternoon, 46-3. Republicans and moderate Democrats had been pushing a teacher evaluation bill for a couple of sessions now, but liberals had balked, echoing union concerns that it was unfair to teachers, who've already seen K-12 funding cut by $2.5 billion during the recession and who have already been working on district-by-district pilot projects to determine evaluation criteria.

Liberal senate education chair Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-1, Bothell) killed an initial pass at the bill sponsored by Republican Steve Litzow (D-41, Mercer Island) and Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue) earlier this session.

However,  Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Seattle), with an eye on counting moderate Democratic and Republican votes necessary to pass his budget, resuscitated the bill, triggering negotiations between the reform contingent and the opponents.[pullquote]"It used to be a debate about whether or not to use the info. Now, it's about exactly how do we use the info. This is a huge step forward."—Sen. Steve Litzow[/pullquote]

The sticking point between the two sides was the use of student performance data in teacher evaluations. The so-called reformers—Litzow and Tom—wanted the legislation to mandate that student performance data be used in teacher evaluations; a reasonable metric, they contend, for a profession that's about educating students. Opponents, backed by the teachers' union, objected that "one size doesn't fit all" school districts, and said there's no uniform way to use student achievement as a metric.

The sides compromised by mandating that student data must be used while also leaving local districts in control of deciding how much weight student performance will have in evaluations. The bill does dictate some guidelines—student growth must be a "substantial factor" in at least three of the eight criteria that go into evaluating teachers on a new grading system that rates teachers from one to four. (It used to be a two-tiered system—satisfactory and unsatisfactory—by the way.)

Additionally, the evaluations themselves must be a factor in hiring and firing and placement of teachers—not just seniority. Reformers like Litzow originally wanted the evaluations to be "a primary" factor, but he was happy to compromise. "It used to be a debate about whether or not to use the info," he said after the vote today, "now, it's about exactly how do we use the info. This is a huge step forward."

Rich Wood, spokesman for the teachers' union, the Washington Education Association, complained that the union was left out of the negotiations and didn't see the bill until a few hours before the vote.  He said: "This new legislation must not derail, short-circuit or otherwise interfere with the evaluation pilot work that is already underway, and educators must be allowed the flexibility to meet the unique needs of students in their local schools."

However, he added diplomatically: "Some of what’s in the Senate teacher evaluation bill is good ... if used correctly, student growth data can help teachers strengthen their teaching to meet the needs of their students."

Senators from both factions voted for the bill with a note of skepticism. Sen. Tom, who wanted stricter guidelines, warned, before voting yes, that the legislature needed to oversee the local districts to make sure the evaluations were legit. And liberal Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-34, W. Seattle, Vashon), who also voted yes, warned that reforms didn't work without funding.

The WEA's Wood seconded that point, concluding: "This bill ignores the real crisis facing our K-12 public schools---the Legislature’s failure to amply fund K-12 schools as mandated by the state Constitution."